Ken Early: Arsène Wenger’s reign can’t survive on past glories
There has always been a clear time to say goodbye even for the best managers
On his first day at Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp’s message to the fans was “we have to change from doubters to believers”. Judging by the atmosphere in the first half of Liverpool’s game against Middlesbrough on Sunday, that metamorphosis is taking longer than he would have liked. The sense of dread at Anfield seemed way out of proportion to the situation: Liverpool were obviously stronger than their already-relegated opponents. But the last 25 years have conditioned Liverpool fans to expect the worst.
The worst nearly happened when Dejan Lovren bundled over Patrick Bamford: nine times out of 10 the referee gives a red card and a penalty. Not this time: it was going to be Liverpool’s day, though the crowd didn’t know it yet.
The day emphasised the fineness of the margin between success and failure. Liverpool have qualified for the Champions League, and Klopp can now turn his attention to fine-tuning his promising team. His pool of potential signings has widened to include players who are motivated by money and by playing at the highest level, instead of just those who are motivated by money.
In a parallel universe, the referee sent Lovren off and Middlesbrough won 1-0. In that universe Liverpool need a massive clear-out to get rid of all the bottlers who aren’t fit to wear the shirt. Over the following days anonymous Liverpool players complain that the manager’s training is archaic and depressing, his tactics naive and one-dimensional. Barcelona are meeting with Philippe Coutinho’s agent. The Jurgen Klopp Heavy Metal Football Mobile has plunged off a cliff and nobody will ever speak of it again except in curses.
The only difference between the two universes is a refereeing decision that changes the course of a single game. The quality of Liverpool’s work is the same in every detail, but lose the last game and everything looks bad instead of good.
The truth is that even if Liverpool had lost against Middlesbrough, they would have had a good season, though maybe it wouldn’t have felt like it today.
They would still have scored many more goals and conceded fewer, won many more games and lost fewer, increased their tally of points and finished higher in the league. Klopp would still have been able to point to significant progress since he took the job, people just wouldn’t have been inclined to pay him much heed.
Likewise, imagine Arsenal had managed to sneak into the top four on the last day. Ten-man Arsenal have done it again, seven wins in eight mean that Arsène Wenger has answered the critics in the only way he knows how.
Yet, in truth, Arsenal would still have had a bad season. Wenger talked about how proud he was to have won 75 points in the league – more than they won while finishing second last season – even though “the psychological environment for the group of players has been absolutely horrendous”.
Wenger refused to say exactly what he meant by this, though he later told one journalist: “You have been at the games and you cannot say that the environment for the group of players was especially positive”, so it sounded like he was blaming the crowd for being doubters not believers.
This seemed a misjudgment from Wenger since the crowd is unlikely to be in any mood to share the blame. They know that missing out on the Champions League is the closest feeling Arsenal can experience to relegation.
When supporters want a manager to stay despite getting relegated it’s because they believe he can plot a route back to the top. In Wenger’s case few still have that confidence.
For the first eight full seasons with Wenger, Arsenal finished first or second. That run ended in 2006, and they have been third or fourth every year since then except for last year’s surprise second place and this year’s fifth.
At first Arsenal fans believed it was because Wenger was working under financial constraints imposed by the cost of building the stadium. As the years wore on some grew impatient and they would shout at Wenger to “spend some f*cking money”.
You don’t hear that any more because Wenger does spend money now. Last summer he spent £90 million on Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, and if there was any improvement in the team it was too subtle for most observers to notice.
Alex Ferguson has offered his support, telling Sky: “There’s no evidence that sacking a manager brings success, but there is evidence, through myself, Clough and Wenger, that you can bring success with long-termism.”
When Ferguson says there’s no evidence that sacking a manager brings success, you’re tempted to respond – what about Ron Atkinson? Or Bruce Rioch? The career of every successful manager is made possible by the sacking of the manager that preceded him.
Yet the comparison with Brian Clough is worth thinking about. Clough retired from the job at Nottingham Forest in 1993 after they were relegated from the Premier League. At the time he was nearly 10 years younger than Wenger is now. He was Forest’s greatest manager, winning two European Cups. But the second of those had been 13 years earlier, just as it’s been 13 years since Wenger’s last major title with Arsenal.
You can’t solve new problems with old trophies. It didn’t matter any more that Clough had been the greatest. Everyone knew it was time to say goodbye.